Friday, February 13, 2009

The Real Cost of 25 Words That Sold for $750,000

Today's front page Washington Post article "Agency's Role Probed in DC Water Report" is the fifth in a series that is slowly but surely lifting the wool from DC's eyes about the harm done to our children from lead in the city's drinking water during 2001-2004.

The article focuses on the paper "Elevated Lead in Drinking Water in Washington, DC, 2003-2004: The Public Health Response," written by WASA consultant and former chair of the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at the George Washington University School of Public Health, Tee L. Guidotti, MD, MPH. This paper concluded with the following 25 words: "There appears to have been no identifiable public health impact from the elevation of lead in drinking water in Washington, DC, in 2003 and 2004."

Dr. Guidotti and his client repeated this "no harm done" mantra again and again, in one form or another, at City Council hearings, as well as WASA community meetings and educational factsheets. The claim is contradicted not only by prior scientific knowledge, but also by the new Environmental Science & Technology study, which found that DC's 2001-2004 lead-in-water crisis caused elevated blood lead levels in hundreds, if not thousands, of infants and toddlers.

The WASA/George Washington University contract paid Dr. Guidotti and his colleagues over $750,000 in a 3-year period (as far as we know, this contract is still active). That's a lot of ratepayer money for what we got in return: a rogue water utility that seems answerable to no one, and a public that is in the dark about the real health risks from lead at the tap. Just in the last year, for example, WASA managed to walk away unscathed from wasting around $100 million on 9,000+ partial lead service line replacements, which can at times make lead-in-water levels worse for an undetermined duration. At the same time, many WASA customers remain unaware of and unprotected from the health risks from such replacements.

The real cost of Dr. Guidotti's 25 words was the disbelief it reinforced in us about the toxicity of lead in water. DC Council member Jim Graham echoed the thoughts of many in DC when he told the Washington Post that, "The paper's assurance that drinking water was safe 'was used over and over and over again.'" Indeed, WASA had Dr. Guidotti present his "no harm done" thesis at multiple forums, including a series of community meetings between January-May 2008, and a WASA Board of Directors' meeting in June 2008.

Today a colleague and I got a call from someone we had contacted some time ago to report WASA's water sampling irregularities at DC public schools. At the time, this person was in a position to help, but decided against getting involved. Now, this person said, they too felt partly responsible for the mess we're in. "I thought it was just lead paint...," the caller confessed.

This is what we got for our $750,000: inaction about a serious public health risk, and now guilt by people who are caring and conscientious and would have done something had they known the truth. Tragic.

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